Secret Soviet Cities

[Images: From ZATO: Secret Soviet Cities during the Cold War at Columbia’s Harriman Institute; right three photographs by Richard Pare].

Speaking of Van Alen Books: earlier this week, they hosted a panel on the topic of “Secret Soviet Cities During the Cold War.” These were closed cities or ZATO, “sites of highly secretive military and scientific research and production in the Soviet Empire. Nameless and not shown on maps, these remote urban environments followed a unique architectural program inspired by ideal cities and the ideology of the Party.”

The ZATO, we read courtesy of an interesting post on the Russian History Blog, was a “Closed Administrative-Territorial Formation (Zakrytoe administrativno-territorial’noe obrazovanie, ZATO)”:

[T]he cities themselves were never shown on official maps produced by the Soviet regime. Implicated in the Cold War posture of producing weapons for the Soviet military-industrial complex, these cities were some of the most deeply secret and omitted places in Soviet geography. Those who worked in these places had special passes to live and leave, and were themselves occluded from public view. Most of the scientists and engineers who worked in the ZATOs were not allowed to reveal their place or purpose of employment.

In any case, there are two main reasons to post this:

[Image: Photo by I. Yakovlev/Itar-Tass, courtesy of Nature].

1) Just last week, Nature looked at Soviet-era experiments in these closed cities, where “nearly 250,000 animals were systematically irradiated” as part of a larger medical effort “to understand how radiation damages tissues and causes diseases such as cancer.”

In an article that is otherwise more medical than it is urban or architectural, we nonetheless read of a mission to the formerly closed city of Ozersk in order to rescue this medical evidence from the urban ruins: “After a long flight, a three-hour drive and a lengthy security clearance, a small group of ageing scientists led the delegation to an abandoned house with a gaping roof and broken windows. Glass slides and laboratory notebooks lay strewn on the floors of some offices. But other, heated rooms held wooden cases stacked with slides and wax blocks in plastic bags.” These slides and wax blocks “provide a resource that could not be recreated today,” Nature suggests, “for both funding and ethical reasons.”

Perhaps it goes without saying, but the idea of medical researchers helicoptering into the ruins of a formerly secret city in order to locate medical samples of fatally irradiated mutant animals is a pretty incredible premise for a future film.

[Images: (top) photo by Tatjana Paunesku; (bottom) photo by S. Tapio. Courtesy of Nature].

2) More relevant for this blog, you only have five days left to see the exhibition ZATO: Secret Soviet Cities during the Cold War up at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, featuring “ZATO archival materials, camouflage maps of strategic sites, secret diagrams of changing ZATO names/numbers, [and] ZATO passports.”

That exhibition documents everything from the “special food and consumer supplements given as rewards for the secrecy and ‘otherness’ of the sites,” to the cities’ eerily suburbanized, half-abandoned state today: “Today there are 43 ZATO on the territory of the Russian Federation. Their future is uncertain: some may survive; others may disappear as urban formations within the context of Russian suburbs.” Check it out if you get a chance.

More info at the Harriman Institute.

Bering Bridge

If you could design a bridge across the Bering Strait, connecting the U.S. to Russia, what would it look like? Come up with something good and you could win as much as $80,000 ($20,000, if you’re a student).
From the competition website:

This project is a dream project attempting to connect two continents. In a wide sense, it includes building a tunnel or a bridge at both ends of the strait, extending [the] existing railways of the United States and Russia, and laying a world highway around the coasts of the world, which require a massive amount of construction.

Your only two requirements are to design “a peace park with a bridging structure using the two islands, Big Diomede and Little Diomede at the Bering Strait,” and a “proposal of how to connect two continents.”
Of course, Russian engineers have already been considering digging a tunnel between the two continents, and the Discovery Channel has chimed in about how a bridge might actually be built across that “iceberg-swirled ocean near the Arctic Circle.”
But neither of those plans came with a total of $200,000 in prize money…
There’s a confusing clock ticking away on the competition website, but you appear to have until March 24, 2009, to register.

The Six Nations of 2010

[Image: Professor Igor Panarin’s six-fold vision of a disintegrated United States; I love how it will precisely follow today’s existing state lines – and that Kentucky will join the European Union].

In what sounds to be very obviously an act of wishful projection, a former KGB intelligence analyst turned public intellectual named Igor Panarin has explained to the Wall Street Journal that the United States only has about 18 months left to live. In the summer of 2010, it will “disintegrate” into six politically separate realms – and, conveniently for a thinker who clearly leans to the right, the borders of these realms will coincide with a new racial segregation.

Best of all, from Panarin’s perspective, Alaska – Sarah Palin included, looking out with alarm from her office window – will “revert” to Russian control.

Quoting at length:

[Prof. Panarin] predicts that economic, financial and demographic trends will provoke a political and social crisis in the U.S. When the going gets tough, he says, wealthier states will withhold funds from the federal government and effectively secede from the union. Social unrest up to and including a civil war will follow. The U.S. will then split along ethnic lines, and foreign powers will move in.

California will form the nucleus of what he calls “The Californian Republic,” and will be part of China or under Chinese influence. Texas will be the heart of “The Texas Republic,” a cluster of states that will go to Mexico or fall under Mexican influence. Washington, D.C., and New York will be part of an “Atlantic America” that may join the European Union. Canada will grab a group of Northern states Prof. Panarin calls “The Central North American Republic.” Hawaii, he suggests, will be a protectorate of Japan or China, and Alaska will be subsumed into Russia.

“People like him have forecast similar cataclysms before, he says, and been right,” the Wall Street Journal continues. Panarin then “cites French political scientist Emmanuel Todd. Mr. Todd is famous for having rightly forecast the demise of the Soviet Union – 15 years beforehand. ‘When he forecast the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1976, people laughed at him,’ says Prof. Panarin.”

In some ways, I’m reminded of Paul Auster’s newest novel, Man in the Dark, in which a civil war has set multiple regions of the United States against one another and against the so-called Federal Army. Or, for that matter, there’s also Rupert Thomson’s Divided Kingdom in which the UK has been split up along emotional lines.

But surely an ex-CIA operative, now milking the lecture circuit for all its worth, could also propose a realistic scenario in which the entire Russian east has been sold off, say, to a combination of Euro-American agribusiness firms and the Chinese government, who them embark upon an elaborate, generations-long act of industrial deforestation? Leaving Moscow a kind of irrelevant, feudal city full of Bulgari and handguns, its governmentally terrorized tower blocks populated almost entirely by unemployed and half-drunk retro-Stalinists?

I don’t mean to imply that I think the end of the United States is somehow politically unimaginable, but that, in a still-bipolar, post-Cold War international imagination, surely either side could convincingly outline the other’s demise?

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: North America vs. the A-241/BIS Device and The Lonely Planet Guide to Micronations: An Interview with Simon Sellars).